Gerrit Zalm, the chief executive officer of the Dutch bank ABN AMRO, appeared before his staff in drag last week. In a performance that belied his usually dour management style, Zalm was dressed as his sister, “Priscilla.” He may make a bulky drag queen, but the CEO’s performance as a Madame working in the world’s oldest profession offered a series of brilliant comparisons to the profession of banking today.
Posing in a purple dress with startling red hair, Priscilla gave her brother a lesson in “putting the customer first” from a “flourishing business with a centuries-long tradition.” She noted that Zalm had given up working for leading — a choice that immensely benefited his salary.
“You should start with core values. In my company, we have three: reliability, professionalism and ambition. We try to give the customer a warm welcome. We aim for long-term client relationships and we deliver what we’ve agreed upon.”
The satire was clear enough. Priscilla suggested that this professional diligence in her brothel was in contrast to her brother’s bank. It lampooned a banking culture in which the top bosses were immensely well-rewarded, while customers suffered. The morals at the bank were lower on an ethical scale than those of a bordello. From inside of a large bank, Zalm was saying, as he beat his fake breasts, he was in a sleazy business.
It was, to be sure, an absurd way of demonstrating a point, but ABN AMRO has had an absurd two decades. Created as a merger between two of the Netherlands’ biggest banks in 1991, it grew so large that it was referred to in its home country simply as “The Bank.” It embarked on a rapid series of acquisitions abroad — in Italy, the U.S. and India. In 2007, it was taken over by a consortium led by the Royal Bank of Scotland in a deal worth close to $100 billion, just before the crash. One grossly over-extended bank took over another.